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Notes on theatre, music, and the spoken word.

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Acting and speaking are bound together

There seem to be two key aspects to speaking well: phrasing and tone. I derive this distinction from my reading of Peter Gill's introduction to Actors Speaking, a collection of interviews with actors that he commissioned while running the National Theatre Studio in London. Gill is known to take speaking very seriously, and I can find no better introduction to the subject than the following

It seems to me that good speaking requires first of all the development of an ear. An ear for what the writer has written – its cadence, its tone – and a felt need to find the technical means to express this, so that it appears as if these are the speaker’s own words. A feeling for the integrity of the language for its own sake is required, an identification and celebration of the word, and – most importantly – the word’s place in the phrase. Phrasing is all, and phrasing forward towards the stop. To be reliant on punctuation only as far as is necessary for clarity and musicality is important, acknowledging the stop and never overmarking the commas. Producing only the voice required by the writing and the situation – nothing more and nothing less; recognising that the same rules apply to writing of every period. The action is encoded in the way something has been written. Acting and speaking are bound together. Listening to the tone will unlock the intention, help to activate a line, as much as any method, and will be more accurate in discovering what the intention actually is.

I quote at length, because I regard this paragraph as something close to a manifesto, a call-to-arms even, wherein all the essential points are gathered together and issued as a creative challenge to engage with speaking as a core – if not the core – tool for an actor. I come back time and time again to this passage, partly because I find it illuminating and inspiring, but partly also because I find it tantalizingly elusive – Gill puts forward the ways but not necessarily the means, and while actors or directors new to thinking about speaking find much to chew on here, they do not find a practical means of translating it into reality.

In particular, it raises the following questions:

  • How do you develop an ear?
  • What are the technical means to express tone?
  • What is phrasing, and why is it so important?
  • What is musicality as it relates to speaking?
  • How do you know if the voice you are using or hearing is the voice required and no more?
  • How is action encoded in writing, and how can it be accessed?
  • What is tone?

These questions go right to the core of what this blog is about, and I will be doing my best to answer them in future posts, and perhaps even find a practical method for applying them in the rehearsal room.

In the meantime I urge you to mull over that paragraph – it will yield up treasures, I promise you – and search out the book. The interviews are all with actors of previous generations, to whom speaking well was the result of hard work and instinct, and while they may not always agree with each other in the details, the feeling is always the same: acting and speaking are bound together.


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